American, Japanese academics win Nobel Prize in Medicine for cancer research

Florence Lopez
October 1, 2018

James P. Allison of MD Anderson Cancer Center at The University of Texas in this picture obtained from MD Anderson Cancer Center (R) and Kyoto University Professor Tasuku Honjo in Kyoto, in this photo taken by Kyodo. "It was that combination of brilliant, tenacious research and being personally unwavering in his confidence in his findings that allowed this field to advance", Curran tells The Scientist.

At news conference later Monday in Kyoto, Honjo said what makes him most delighted is when he hears from patients who have recovered from serious illnesses because of his research.

Immunotherapy had a slow start.

Allison, an American immunologist, conducted a study on a protein that functions as a brake on the immune system.

Around the same time, Honjo discovered a protein on immune cells, the ligand PD-1, and eventually realised that it also worked a brake, but it acted differently.

Thanks to Allison's doggedness, anti-CTLA-4 therapy is now an accepted therapy for cancer and it opened the floodgates for a slew of new immunotherapies, Krummel said. "A comment like that makes me happier than any prize", he said.

Allison's work has already benefited thousands of people with advanced melanoma, a disease that used to be invariably fatal within a year or so of diagnosis. "I thought everybody would jump at it". According to Curran, a paper that he, Allison, and their colleagues submitted received a review that read: "It is well known that immunotherapy only works in mice". Several such drugs have been approved for use in the U.S.

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Dr Allison, 70, said he was "honoured and humbled to receive this prestigious recognition". For many scientists, he said, a driving motivation "is simply to push the frontiers of knowledge".

"We are thrilled to see Jim's work recognized by the Nobel Committee", said Russell Vance, the current director of the Cancer Research Laboratory and a UC Berkeley professor of molecular and cell biology.

"By stimulating the ability of our immune system to attack tumor cells, this year's #NobelPrize laureates have established an entirely new principle for cancer therapy".

By the 1970s Allison had developed a strong fascination for T-cells, soldiers of the immune system that help defend the body against foreign invaders.

His 1994 experiment was spectacularly successful, with mice with cancer cured by treatment with the antibodies that inhibit the brake and unlock antitumor T-cell activity. "You have to be very original", Okazaki says. Targeting PD-1 has shown positive results in treating lung cancer, renal cancer, lymphoma and melanoma.

This scenario can also occur when a person has had a cancer for a long time. His work led to development of the first immune checkpoint inhibitor drug.

Antibodies against PD-1 have been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration as an investigational new drug for the treatment of cancer.

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